Wood from historic ships built into desks for VP, Navy secretary
March 31, 2021 | 1:50 am UTC

The Naval History and Heritage Command create heritage desks for both the Vice President of the United States and the Secretary of the Navy using wood salvaged from the USS Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat and America’s ship of state.

Photo By U.S. Navy photo by William Taylor

Seeking to create two historic desks comparable to the U.S. President’s historic HMS Resolute desk, a team of Navy Seabees used parts of famous ships, including the USS Constitution, to build desks for the Vice Prsident and the Secretary of the Navy.

Timber from the USS Constitution was used to build the desk now used by Vice President Kamala Harris. Often referred to as Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution was one of the six first frigates of the U.S. Navy. It was launched in 1797 in Boston, Massachusetts. Today, 224 years later, the Constitution is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat, according to the U.S. Navy.

The team also built a desk for the Secretary of the Navy made of parts from the frigates USS Constitution, USS Chesapeake, sloop of war USS Constellation, and battleships USS Texas, USS New Jersey, and USS Arizona. The Seabees team was attached to Naval History and Heritage Command, located at the Washington Navy Yard, which is responsible for the preservation, analysis, and dissemination of U.S. naval history and heritage.

Former Secretary of the Navy, Kenneth J. Braithwaite, poses with Seabees during an executive desk presentation event at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy. The desk project was initiated to deliver a desk of comparable provenance, history, and heritage as the president’s HMS Resolute desk. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Randy L. Adams II/Released)

“It’s a huge opportunity to be a part of,” said Builder 1st Class Hilary Lemelin, assigned to USS Constitution. “It’s amazing to create a desk for someone who makes such large decisions for the country and Navy knowing they’ll sit there every day is huge. The importance of their job can affect everything we do. It’s a piece of history now.”

The Seabees constructed the desks in about seven weeks. Staining and applying finishing coats was the longest part of the process due to the 24-hour drying time between each finish coat.

They used wood, copper, and nails from Constitution, wood from Chesapeake and Constellation, steel plating from Texas and Arizona, and deck bolts from New Jersey. The Secretary’s desk was made primarily of salvaged excess wood and copper from Constitution, a small amount of donated original wood from the frigate USS Chesapeake, donated salvage wood from the museum frigate USS Constellation, donated metal from the museum battleships USS Texas and USS New Jersey and a relic from the battleship USS Arizona.

Builder 1st Class Hilary Lemelin, assigned to USS Constitution, speaks with Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Harker during a heritage desk presentation at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Alexander C. Kubitza)
 

The team left square-nail holes in parts of the panels to show they came from the planks of the Constitution and as a reminder that sailors served on it. The panels were a piece of history they didn’t want to cover up. Yet, these were not the parts of the desk that mean the most to Lemelin.

“In each desk, we built pen trays in the center drawer and SECNAV Kenneth Braithwaite has a note written in there with a piece of the Arizona,” said Lemelin. “That’s the biggest thing for me because every time they open that tray to sign an important document that could potentially change the Navy or the nation, I think I put that there for them to use. For me, that’s history and we’re helping whoever sits in those seats think about the immense weight they hold.”

Vice President Kamala Harris conducts business at the USS Constitution desk. The Naval History and Heritage Command undertook the project to create a heritage desk for both the Vice President of the United States and the Secretary of the Navy. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
 

“This was the highlight of my career for sure,” said Senior Chief Constructionman Noah Ziegler, assigned to Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Atlantic. “We worked together every day and learned from each other while we made desks that I’m extremely proud of. Watching the way the team meshed and helped each other on top of knowing these desks would be used for many years to come, it was an awesome overall experience. Saying it was an honor is a significant understatement.”

Ziegler said the team constantly talked about how they could maximize the materials they used to capture the spirit of the old ships and all the sailors who served on them.

 

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William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editor of FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.